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Adventures in social and emotional learning

Kate-Walker.jpgThe Voyageur Outward Bound School is an example of a program that fosters social and emotional learning (SEL). After our recent SEL symposium, I spoke with Poppy Potter, the director of operations and master educator at VOBS, a program that works to bring out these skills in young people.

KATE WALKER: Tell me about the Voyageur Outward Bound School.
POPPY POTTER: Our mission is to change lives through challenge and discovery. We use experiential programs to impact our students' lives. Whether a 28-day canoe expedition, or a High Ropes Insight Program, our programs are designed to demonstrate to our students that "they can do more than they ever thought possible." Our founder Kurt Hahn talked about teaching "through" rather than "for" and this philosophy is still present in all of our courses today.

KW: What are the program's goals? What SEL competencies or skills does your program develop?

PP: We hope our students look back on their course and discover that the trajectory of their life changed after their VOBS experience. We want our students to find they have better managed life's challenges and made better choices because of what they learned on their Outward Bound course. We strive to demonstrate that through discovery of their strength of character, their ability to lead and their determination to serve their community, that they help create a more resilient and compassionate world.

The competencies Outward Bound students experience and gain perfectly align with SEL. Language we use to describe the skills and attributes students gain include self-confidence, resilience, problem solving, collaboration, compassion, effective communication and social and environmental awareness. Similarly, when looking at the recent studies about grit, our students discover that perseverance leads to success through grit and determination, creativity and collaboration, and ultimately that they can choose to live differently by making choices that lead toward their dreams and goals.

boys-with-sled-dogs.jpgKW: What are the program components that promote and reinforce social and emotional learning?

PP: Students participate in programs ranging from 1-50+ days that are designed to help them discover and build the strength of their character, leadership skills and develop an ethic of service. Our expeditions are designed with a deliberate progression for students as they move toward new awareness of their capabilities:
  • Training phase: Knowledge = Success. During this part of our programming students 1) gain personal, interpersonal and technical skills, 2) practice problem-solving and decision-making skills, and 3) experience natural consequences and rewards.
  • Main phase: Transfer Responsibility = Gained Confidence. Our instructors facilitate challenges for participants to 1) face adversity, 2) experience successes and failures as learning opportunities with coaching and feedback, and 3) solve real problems using effective communication and conflict resolution skills.
  • Final phase: Own It = Apply It. Instructors recognize and affirm participants, resulting in 1) students receive increased responsibility, 2) collaboration skills as the students create and move toward a common vision, and 3) application of mastery of skills to achieve personal and group goals.
Within this progression, we have many course components that promote social-emotional learning.

KW: How does that happen?

PP: All of our staff are trained and mentored to move through a course design process using our educational framework. All VOBS programs are created with specific design principles that allow for a consistency in our programs, regardless of each program's uniqueness:
  • Learning through experience. We facilitate engaging, relevant, sequential experiences that promote skill mastery and incorporate reflection and transference
  • Challenge and adventure. We use familiar and unfamiliar settings to impel students into mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding experiences while managing appropriate risks
  • Supportive environment. We design experiences that support physical and emotional safety and develop a caring and positive group culture.
Lastly, we teach and work by these values: compassion, integrity, excellence and inclusion.

KW: Has the program been evaluated for SEL outcomes? What is the evidence of effectiveness?

PP:We use the Outward Bound Outcomes Instrument (OBOI) to evaluate outcomes of participating youth. OBOI is a validated survey developed by the national Outward Bound organization that includes nine measures. In a November 2012 evaluation of urban youth from River's Edge Academy, students reported the following gains from participating in VOBS activities:
  • 90% increased self-confidence
  • 87% increased goal setting
  • 90% increased resilience
  • 86% increased empowerment
  • 89% increased problem-solving
  • 92% increased communication
  • 86% increased group collaboration
  • 87% increased compassion
  • 90% increased environmental awareness
How does the VOBS story resonate with your own youth program? Are you intentionally fostering SEL competencies? If so, how? And how do you know if your program is increasing SEL in youth participants?

-- Kate Walker, Assistant Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice

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  1. Kate and Poppy - Thanks for sharing a great adventure into social and emotional learning. The clarity of your goals and approaches is terrific along with the results.
    Reminded me why as a parent I supported my son doing a VOBS dog sledding and cross-country ski expedition in -10 degree weather in the Boundary Waters when he was a senior in high school (while his mom and I went to warm resort!). His experience was terrific in many of the ways described. It helped him make a decision on what college to attend and how much he liked overcoming physical as well as mental challenges. Really did see a difference in his self-confidence and approach to life that was both impressive and rewarding for a parent.
    Tanks to you and your staff as well as all who work in high-quality adventure efforts that provide new forms of supports and challenges that build social and emotional skills.

  2. Dale,
    Thanks for your comment. I am glad your son got to experience a true winter experience with us. You also selected a great time in his life to experience a VOBS course. We find that this type of experience at a time of transition is incredibly meaningful for the participant. You acknowledged the reason why - the boost in confidence that comes from a challenging experience puts true belief behind, "I learned I could do more than I ever thought possible."
    With our programs based near Ely, MN and our Center her in the Twin Cities we are able to serve students who want to come on an experience like your son did, as an individual who is placed in a crew with other students their age, or through our Center programs as part of a group program we may conduct with a school or non-profit agency. It's very exciting work!

  3. Here's an example of how Expeditionary Learning works in the classroom:
    That Pioneer Press Article features Open World Learning Academy, a school partner of Voyageur Outward Bound School.
    We anticipate this movements like the emerging Social and Emotional Learning programming at the University of Minnesota Extension will help shift perception of schools like O.W.L. as "hippie schools" to what they really are: innovative industry leaders. When research and big names like the University of Minnesota validate the impact of expeditionary learning on students, schools like O.W.L. will emerge ahead of the curve.
    With such compelling results, we're excited for more mainstream public support and funding to increase!


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